When Bad Reviews Happen to Good Writers

An essay I wrote this morning, in reaction to a book review in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

If you’ve never read Alix Ohlin, you should.  She’s one of the good ones out there, and she’s no slouch when it comes to publishing.  Two story collections and two novels in seven years – perhaps not an impressive haul for bionic typewriters like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, but plenty impressive to me.  She may not have won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award yet, but Ohlin is someone I look up to, because she’s just a very solid writer.

So I was surprised when I read a review of her new novel (Inside) and collection (Signs and Wonders) on Friday in The New York Times Book Review (in print today).  Surprised because the review was scathingly negative.


Signs and Wonders, by Alix Ohlin

Check out the reviewlet I wrote for the always wonderful and insightful Fiction Writers Review.

This might not seem like a compliment, but it is: Alix Ohlin is a literary torturer.

In her new collection, Signs and Wonders (Vintage), Ohlin (The Missing Person,Babylon and Other Stories) puts her poor people through the wringer, then takes a wrung-out person and puts him under a flattened-human-sized slide for an intense, revelatory microscopic examination. Then she peels off this pancaked person and twists him like toffee, extracting every last drop of his essence onto the page.


Life Missing Matrimony Novelist, or Four Short Reviews of Four Novels

There was a time in my life when I read purely for pleasure.  Before then, I read pretty much for pain, or more accurately, I read and it caused me pain.  Like reading Thoreau’s Walden and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage for English class – now there was torture.  But thankfully, there was Stephen King and Stephen R. Donaldson and Stephen Coonts and even some authors not named Stephen, and I was in bliss.  These were my lazy high school years.  I remember reading Misery in a single day, from nine in the morning until nine at night, and I had no other desire than to feel every word on the page.  It was pure hedonism.

A review of four books I wrote for The Nervous Breakdown.

Evidence of Good Writing: Alix Ohlin’s The Missing Person

What is good writing?  Of course this is a highly subjective topic, but sometimes it’s right there on the page.  Right now I’m reading Alix Ohlin’s The Missing Person, and here’s the evidence I’d like to present to the Court of Good Writing, on page 48 (paperback edition).  Our narrator, Lynn, is driving in her brother’s Chevy Caprice, through the deserted desert landscape of Albuquerque:

The Sandias were brown in the distance.  The houses were brown.  The highways were brown.  Everything was brown.  The car’s wheezing air-conditioning blew a stream of tepid air over my right shoulder.

The magic of this excerpt is the last sentence, the part I boldfaced.  One of the golden rules of good writing is not relying on adjectives and adverbs and opting for concrete nouns and verbs.  I believe the same can be said of sentences, that the more specific you can make it, the stronger its impact will be.  Ohlin could’ve easily written this sentence instead:

The car’s wheezing air-conditioning blew a stream of tepid air.

I hate to admit it, but this is probably how far I would’ve gone.  I mean there’s nothing wrong with that version, but wow, having the stream of air hit me on my right shoulder is so much more specific, so much realer.

This is not an isolated incident.  On page 43:

A woman’s laughter sounded loud and shrill above the din, repeating at intervals, like a ringing telephone.

That repetition, and the simile with the telephone — it gives great specificity to that sentence.  This book is chock full of moments like these.